In 2004, when I made my first trip to the Arizona-Mexico border, I had never met anyone who was undocumented. Of course, I must have crossed paths with people without papers before then, but like most Americans, I didn’t recognize how present and integrated the undocumented community is in every facet of life in the United States. As I photographed along the border, I quickly became aware that life moves very differently there than it does in any other part of the United States — a heavy police presence is a part of life, the natural environment is both beautiful and treacherous and the two countries blend into a complex web of cultures, family, history and identity.
On that first trip I started photographing a large mixed-status family originally from Mexico. One year later, the mother and daughter were arrested by the border patrol on their way home from work in the tomato fields. I became familiar with the complex, and often dysfunctional, immigration justice system as I continued to record their experience, mainly with still images, over the next three years. Their story was published in major national magazines, and in the years since, the family has continued to struggle with legal-status issues.
As a storyteller, I am drawn to subjects that are crucial to the fabric of the United States but are often underreported, misunderstood and simplified in the mass media. As my relationship with this family in Arizona grew very close, many of the complexities and nuances of what it means to live while undocumented emerged. There is a constant struggle to arrange many of the “normal” things in life when you don’t have proper documentation — huge obstacles stand in the way of getting a job, driver’s license, car, credit card, education and health care. Many people without papers have described the ever-present fear of being caught, which often recedes to become quite faint and barely noticeable, but then moves to the fore and is strong and terrifying when the border patrol appears on the horizon.
Two weeks after I met the Mejias, the family featured in Sin País, the parents, Sam and Elida, were deported to Guatemala after living in California for almost 20 years. While the parents were being deported, their son, Gilbert, was fighting his own deportation case, but the younger children, Helen and Dulce, were safe since they were U.S. citizens. I went to their house, and the family members and I sat in a circle in the living room as I pitched an idea of a film that would intimately follow their journey through the most emotionally and psychologically difficult experience of their lives.
The family quickly agreed that it was a good idea. The matriarch, Elida, thoughtfully commented, “This film may not specifically help us with our case, but it will show all of the people who have never met someone without papers what we go through, that we are part of the community and that this is happening to thousands of people every day.” Elida’s words stuck with me throughout the production of Sin País as I followed the family members during their painful separation. I filmed in Guatemala (where Sam and Elida were deported, taking Dulce with them) and in the United States (where Gilbert and Helen remained). Elida’s thoughts resonated deeply with me when deportation statistics for 2011 were recently released: Those statistics show that 400,000 people were deported from the United States in 2011.
As immigration continues to be one of the most complicated social, cultural and political issues in our country, I am more passionate than ever about creating nuanced and intimate representations of immigrant stories. I believe that a unifying national conversation about immigration is possible, and that dissemination of stories like that of the Mejia family can help steer the conversation to a more humane, inclusive and positive place.
— Theo Rigby, Director/Producer